2:23pm

Fri April 6, 2012
Music Interviews

Gotye: 'Less Of A Musician, More Of A Tinkerer'

Originally published on Wed April 11, 2012 8:47 am

The Australian artist Gotye has been big in his home country for several years, but this winter, one particular song started an avalanche. "Somebody That I Used to Know," from the album Making Mirrors, has been a massive hit everywhere it's landed: the U.K., Germany, South Africa, Israel and now here in the U.S. It even inspired a YouTube cover that's become a runaway hit all its own.

Wouter "Wally" De Backer, the man behind Gotye, tells NPR's Laura Sullivan that he was as surprised as anyone by the song's popularity.

"I wouldn't finish a song if I don't think it has something special about it," he says. "[But] I certainly didn't listen to the final playback and go, you know, 'Punch the sky, that's it! Hitsville, here we come!' "

The song is actually a duet: It features a verse by the Australian New Zealand singer Kimbra, which contradicts the lovelorn narrative of De Backer's lyrics up to that point. De Backer says deciding to add a second voice almost kept the song from getting finished.

"I actually wrote it fairly quickly," he says. "When I struck upon the idea of introducing another perspective, I wrote the female part. Then the big challenge ... was all about trying to find the right female vocalist to complete it. And that was a lot of waiting."

His patience paid off: "Somebody That I Used to Know" is currently the No. 3 song in the U.S., according to the Billboard pop chart. In spite of his swift success, De Backer says he still doesn't feel like a rock star.

"Sometimes I feel like I've become less of a musician and more a tinkerer, a cobbler, a self-made producer and songwriter," he says. "It probably took seven or eight years before I took a chance and quit my day job."

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Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW")

SULLIVAN: This is currently the number three song in the country. It's called "Somebody I Used to Know," and it's by an Australian artist known as Gotye. He's been big in Australia for a few years now, but this song started an avalanche in the U.K., Germany, South Africa, Israel. Everywhere it's landed, it's been a massive hit, and now, even here in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW")

GOTYE: (Singing) Now and then, I think of when we were together. Like when you said you felt so happy you could die. I told myself that you were right for me, but felt so lonely in your company. But that was love, and it's an ache I still remember.

SULLIVAN: Gotye is sometimes known by his real name, Wally De Backer, and he joins me in the studio. Welcome, Wally.

GOTYE: How you doing?

SULLIVAN: This song that we were just listening to is a duet with a singer named Kimbra. Tell me about what is going on with the two characters in this song.

GOTYE: Well, they're both fairly unreliable narrators, which I think is one of the strengths the song has. When Kimbra enters about three-quarters of the way through the tune, she brings most of what I've sung into question.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW")

KIMBRA: (Singing) Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over. But had me believing it was always something that I'd done...

GOTYE: And then I think what I sing afterwards brings most of what she kind of sings into question. So, yeah, it's fairly open like that, I think, in a possibly confusing but maybe also intriguing way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW")

KIMBRA: (Singing) You said that you could let it go, and I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know.

GOTYE: (Singing) But you didn't have to cut me off make it like it never happened and that we were nothing. And I don't even need your love. But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough.

To me, I guess that felt like one of the most truthful aspects of writing this song was that a lot of people experience like in relationships. And after, you know, a relationship breaks up, (unintelligible) sometimes confusion, and the fog of memory can sometimes get, you know, definitely in the way of anything being very clear.

SULLIVAN: This song, "Somebody that I Used to Know," is so incredibly popular right now, but it almost didn't even get made.

GOTYE: It almost didn't get finished.

SULLIVAN: It took five months?

GOTYE: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Five months or something? What happened?

GOTYE: I actually wrote it fairly quickly. I mean, you know, when I struck up on the idea of introducing other perspective, I wrote the female part. And then the big challenge, I guess, the five months you mentioned of waiting and wondering whether I might ever finish the tune, was all about trying to find the right female vocalist to complete it. And that was a lot of waiting and a fairly frustrating experience.

SULLIVAN: Did you go through several? I mean, did you...

GOTYE: I tried it with a few different vocalists, some who sang it, I thought, really great, but it didn't - in the end, after some consideration, just didn't end up sounding quite right. So I was kind of back to square one going, yeah, no, its still haven't found the right person.

SULLIVAN: Is that hard, though, to bring somebody in and then say, no, thank you?

GOTYE: It was, in one instance, because we were, you know, we were friends. And - but I think, you know, she was understanding. And it was interesting because for her it, had been perhaps, at least on some level, something of an intellectual exercise because I'd kind of asked her in a way to try and sing in a way she wouldn't often naturally sing. And she was really interested to try that as, you know, a craft-type of approach. And so in the end, she was kind of like, wow, that was still interesting. You know, I understand. That's cool.

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Wally De Backer, better known as Gotye. His album is called "Making Mirrors." I want to talk about all the different musical styles that you have on this album, and there are so many. The song "State of the Art" starts off like Henry Mancini's lost reggae album. And...

GOTYE: I like that.

SULLIVAN: ...then all of a sudden, the vocals come in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE OF THE ART")

GOTYE: (Singing) When the cotillion arrived, we threw out the television...

SULLIVAN: I mean, it's pretty disorienting. You're really pushing the limits of Auto-Tune, it seems like.

GOTYE: Yeah. This was like - I took a bit of a different approach with this. I ended up singing the melody of this song in a monotone on one note, sort of up higher, higher maybe than any note that's in the actual melody of the song. And then I manually went through and shifted each note from that monotone performance down to the arc of the melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE OF THE ART")

GOTYE: (Singing) Enjoy the state of the art, the magic swing piano really is astounding. Now we can't tell them apart, but these amazing simulations end up sounding even better than the real thing.

I didn't want it to sort of sound robotic. I wanted it to sound like a peculiar sort of human but not human character.

SULLIVAN: So was that the inspiration behind wanting to do it this way, because there's a lyric in the song that says: These amazing simulations end up sounding even better than the real thing. I mean, was that facetious?

GOTYE: No. I mean, the song is like this - well, on the one hand, it's like a love song to an electronic organ that sits in my land room...

SULLIVAN: OK.

GOTYE: ...and talking to it - given to me, secondhand purchase by my parents. So, yeah, on some level, the song is kind of just like a love song to a piece of technology. But then when the song and the lyrics sort of became about that organ, I realized, I think, at some stage, it became a little bit like a reflection on the nature of how people can relate to inanimate objects and basic technology into the kind of bold promise that technology at certain periods seems to give us, of, you know, this possible future, this bright future, and especially, I think, I mean, about how that promise of that future can very quickly become very quaint and almost impossible for a future generation to understand because technology dates so quickly.

So on some level, maybe the weird voice is kind of like I imagine maybe it's myself in 20, 30 years' time, or maybe it's really like a middle-age organ enthusiast who is trying pretty hard but can't really convince his wife or his kids that these amazing simulations of violins and vibrato trumpets are interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE AND MIRRORS")

SULLIVAN: There are so many different musical styles within this record, and it seems like it just has one sort of joyous moment after another. "Smoke and Mirrors" certainly took a turn in a different direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE AND MIRRORS")

GOTYE: (Singing) You're a fraud and you know it, but it's too good to throw it all away. Anyone would do the same...

SULLIVAN: You're a fraud and you know, it but it's too good to throw it all away. Anyone would do the same. You've got to keep it going. What were you going through when you wrote that?

GOTYE: It comes from a feeling of not always being confident, the thought that I have to write somehow to, I don't know, do certain things in music or that I feel, you know, not good enough a lot of a time, that I'm really challenging myself and falling short a lot of the time.

SULLIVAN: I mean, I read that you had said before that you had struggled with depression, and that while you were making this particular record, or is that something that you sort of struggled with for a long time?

GOTYE: There were moments making this record where I felt like, you know, I would get up in the morning and go: I wonder if this is - am I different, am I really depressed, because I'm struggling, like, really deeply at times. And, yeah, so I'd say that's a certain level of depression.

SULLIVAN: But then you follow this very introspective song, which is just full of self-doubt and questioning, with a song called "I Feel Better."

GOTYE: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL BETTER")

GOTYE: (Singing) I feel better, better, better than before. I feel better...

SULLIVAN: Do you like being a rock star?

GOTYE: I don't think I'm a rock star.

SULLIVAN: No?

GOTYE: Rock star? Really? I just almost (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: You see yourself as a musician.

GOTYE: Sometimes I've felt like I've become less a musician, you know, more kind of, I don't know, just a tinkerer, cobbler, you know, a self-made producer and songwriter, and probably took seven or eight years before I took a chance and quit my day job. And my folks let me move back home for a few months, and I kind of eked it out, tried to work out with some record sales and (unintelligible) and live gigs would actually, you know, start paying the bills. And thankfully, maybe four years since then, it's, yeah, it's kind of continued. But, yeah, I mean, I definitely feel like a musician more than I do a rock star.

SULLIVAN: Wally De Backer is better known as Gotye. His album is called "Making Mirrors," and you can hear a few tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Thank you so much for coming in.

GOTYE: All right. Thanks, Laura.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL BETTER")

GOTYE: (Singing) Better than before. I feel better, better, better. I'm not down anymore. Life sometimes seems to get the best of you like everything just brings you down. Just when you think...

SULLIVAN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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